Batty for Bats (and Badgers)

The Mole had long wanted to make the acquaintance of the Badger. He seemed, by all accounts, to be such an important personage and, though rarely visible, to make his unseen influence felt by everybody about the place

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Firstly- apologies, apparently I took approximately two photos this week, not up to snuff.

Day 1

Badgers! Ben was away all this week for his graduation, so instead of going out for water voles, I was taken out to do some badger baiting. Let me quickly say -this is not what it sounds like at all! What this involved for us, was to walk around a beautiful farm and locate known badger sets and then… bury peanuts! Badgers love peanuts. The reason we were doing this was because we have received some TB Vaccine for the badgers so we then need to be able to catch the badgers. The easiest way of doing this, is getting them addicted to the peanuts, and then using peanuts to lure them into cages, where we can safely vaccinate them, mark them so we don’t vaccinate the same individual twice, and then let them go. The idea is to vaccinate roughly 75-80% of the population if we can, to get some level of full protection across the population.

So it was very very hot all day, and walking around with spades and a rucksack full of peanuts was quite intense. We would move from each sett digging a couple of holes in each location putting a few handfuls of peanuts in each hole, and then bury them again. This is to give the badgers peanuts, but also making them forage for the nuts, so that they don’t become lazy.

Despite the heat, and the flies, it was a nice walk around a fairly nice farm (just too much arable) but the farmer is pretty good at keeping wild borders for his field, including woodland and large broad hedges, extremely good for wildlife and breeding birds. It is also nice that the farmer is friendly towards the badgers on his land, despite the fact he has cattle!

 

Day 2

Today was my formal introduction to BBOWT, better late than never! The history of how BBOWT was formed etc, various social media policies and how we can help, whether we are volunteers or paid staff. It was an interesting day, but long and hot, and stuck in one small room with about 20 other people! Not ideal.

That evening however, I went on a Bat survey! It was an emergent survey, which means that you arrive at the site, before sunset, set up yourself in a position where you can see the entirety of the roofline/tree/ outbuilding/ whatever it is that you’re surveying and settle in. The survey starts about 15 minutes before sunset and will continue for at least an hour and a half after sunset, or until all bat activity has ceased.

In this instance we were surveying a house, so I stood watching the house to see if I could see any bats emerging from the house. As bats are (surprisingly) tiny, they can emerge from the smallest crevices, so cracks in mortar, underneath roof tiles, or gutters can all be potential roosts. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any bats this time, but it did mean that I could familiarise myself with the equipment and forms that I need to use in the future.

 

Day 3

So on the hottest day in June since 1976, I was outside, in a hay meadow, completing a rapid assessment. It was tough!

I drank a lot of water, and made some new acquaintances, complained about the heat a lot, and had fun! My botany identification skills are really improving because of the repetition that comes from doing multiple rapid assessments in the same habitats. I do need to expand my knowledge past the limited plants I see on rapid assessments, but this is a good way of getting to know some more about various families and where I can expect what plants etc.

I also did another bat survey, at a different site. This time looking at some abandoned outbuildings in a field. It was another lovely site, which I assumed would be perfect for bats, but alas, there were none! What I did get to see though, was a very active pair of barn owls, going back and forth to where they were raising their chicks! It was such a special thing to see the strength and grace of these birds.

 

I was also thinking that I want to try a new direction with this blog. A lot of my days can be repetitive, which can make it less interesting for anyone who reads this, and for me to write, so I was thinking it would be nice for people to ask me questions or suggest themes. i.e. do you want to know more about specific chalk grassland flora, mammals, butterflies or general management and ecology questions? If so get in touch and I can try and write something about it! This is on the back of my article that I wrote a short while ago for the Oxford Times- I really enjoyed researching it and structuring an article, so if anyone has any questions… let me know!

 

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Week 13 – Wandering in Willows (quite literally)

There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more.”        – Lord Byron

So the past few weeks when I haven’t been writing, have all been fabulous as usual, although I think I have settled in and got used to it more now. It isn’t such a novelty. They do then to follow a pattern, so it has felt a little bit like I don’t have many new things to say. That, coupled with moving house and getting to know flatmates so being busier in the evenings, and a week away on holiday to Devon has meant I fell off the writing wagon- but, my new month’s resolution is to keep writing. Even just for my own records!

(I also have some news of not only getting one new job to have on the side, but THREE, two of which involve doing surveys, one of which is office based within BBOWT).

 

Day 1

So Monday this week was DRAMATIC. We had to do what we thought would be a fairly innocuous and easy survey day. It took place in the Oxford Science park, so we thought that the rivers would be more like ditches- easy to wade, not necessarily a lot to see, but should be an easy walk (maybe 3 or so Km of river).

The first survey stretch was exactly what we anticipated. We did the whole thing in about 45 minutes absolutely no bother, getting into and out of the river was a bit tricky, but ultimately it was ok.

BUT THEN.

We moved on to the next stretch of river, which involved more of a walk, carrying waders, life jackets and all of our equipment and bags in the warm sun, making me hot and flustered. Then we climbed over a fence, and waded through some fairly rank grassland, with our stuff, over two huge pipes, more grassland, and then 3 metres of nettles that were taller than me. Excellent.

THEN, the water was too deep for me to get in, so just Ben got in and I tried to walk along the bank, but it was too overgrown and the river ran under a major road, which I obviously couldn’t cross. So I had to get in. By climbing through a willow that had fallen across the river, I managed to gain access to the river, which wasn’t too deep by this point. We walked on a little bit and all of a sudden the depth increased, meaning the water came in over the top of my waders. This bit was actually quite fun, both Ben and I were giggling, then we tried to walk up river under the road and the water kept getting deeper, and deeper… and deeper until it reached up past my bellybutton – at which point I decided that it was too much, and we had to turn tail and go back on ourselves.

Back down the river, back through the willow, up onto the bank through the nettles and into the field. We sat down for a bit in the grass to empty our waders then had to walk back, for a couple of miles in wet clothes to try and find a safe way to cross the busy road. It was hot, we were soaking, and uncomfortable, but we carried on.

Again the river was too deep for me to get in, so I fought along the bank and Ben got in. It quickly became too deep for him too, and so he got out, slipped and fell through nettles. At this point, we decided to call it a day, and we walked back in the heat, to the office.

It’s nice to know that I can have bad days too.

 

Day 2 & 3

Rapid hay meadow assessments both days. Which meant two truly beautiful days, which has also improved my botany skills ten-fold. It also gave me a chance to see some more beautiful butterflies, like the Grizzled Skipper (featured below).  On the flip side, it was getting hotter and hotter and hotter.

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We didn’t have enough water, the heat was almost unbearable, and being in a hay meadow there was little to no shade.

It was a really nice way to get to know some of the regular volunteers and other BBOWT teams that we don’t get to interact with on a regular basis.

These meadows are beautiful neutral or chalk meadows, quite specific to the region. BBOWT’s doing their best to manage the meadows as traditionally as possible to try and preserve the diversity of the flora. It then also means that if there is a particularly good meadow, when the sward is cut, it is spread across a poorer meadow so the rich seed can fall into the grass and encourage better growth.

I’m learning so much! But it has been a really tiring week – heat exhaustion is becoming a more of a genuine possibility these days!

 

 

 

 

Mammal Trapping

There have only been about a half dozen genuinely important events in the four-billion-year saga of life on Earth: single-celled life, multicelled life, differentiation into plants and animals, movement of animals from water to land, and the advent of mammals and consciousness” – Elon Musk

First of all, Many apologies for being rather distant in my posts- and I was doing so well! Unfortunately, I have got rather out of the habit of doing any writing, so it just fell to the wayside. But I am back. Hello!

A couple of weeks ago, I went on a Small Mammal Trapping course. Not only did this teach me how to identify all of Britain’s land mammals, it taught me how to safely trap, handle and identify small mammals such as shrews, voles and mice.

I had such a lovely lovely LOVELY weekend.

 

The course took place at the FSC centre at Juniper Hall near Dorking. It is a lovely spot, right at the base of Box Hill, and is a place of woodland and chalk grassland, so perfect habitat for all sorts of beasties.

The course was a mixture of classroom and practical sessions so that we can put our theory into practice. The classroom sessions involved learning the law in relation to wild animals and protected species in particular, identification techniques, and trapping methods. These were great, and really helped us when we did field sessions.

First field session, was learning how to assemble a Longworth trap, bait the traps and then set them safely – especially with regards to putting enough food and moisture in the trap, as some small mammals like shrews get incredibly dehydrated, and will often die in traps if enough attention isn’t paid.

We then set the traps and left them overnight, whilst we slept and emptied them first thing in the morning. Unfortunately – with Corvids being as clever as they are, the majority of our traps had been found and broken open by crows. Hopefully there was nothing in there! We did find one successful trap which contained a lovely bank vole. 20170513_092522

These little critters are the most docile of the small mammals, and will often sit on your hand! We processed him, by weighing him and figuring out if he was a boy or a girl, and then released him where he was found.

The next few field session were very similar, in that we would set the traps and then leave them for 6-12 hours (which is the maximum length of time you can leave a small mammal trap without checking it), and empty what we found.

We found voles, shrews and mice! They really are beautiful little animals, especially up close. I had the pleasure of learning how to scruff and handle a woodmouse.

It was just a fantastic weekend, I had a lot of fun, gained a shrew license and a new set of skills!

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Week 5&6 – Rapid Impact Assessment

A lot to write about, but I have combined the two weeks into one post, as I have had two, two day weeks on the trot.

Week 5, Day 1 – Butterfly survey

Beautiful trip to Hartslock nature reserve, one of BBOWT’s steepest reserves in order to look for butterflies. It is still quite early for most species, but since it’s been so warm, there are a few that have started their flight seasons.

We saw beautiful Green Hairstreaks, Dingy Skippers, Brimstones, Orange tips and a Mother Shipton (which is a day-flying moth).

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It was a steep, hot, but rather fantastic day. It was nice to do a butterfly survey where we actually saw some butterflies, and gain some experience in identifying butterflies on the wing. I’m finding identifying the white butterflies particularly difficult, as when they’re flying, you can’t necessarily distinguish the delicacy of some of their markings.

I think the butterfly surveys are becoming one of my favourite surveys though. You’re always in beautiful countryside, usually with stunning views, and it helps that in order to carry out a survey, it has to be sunny!

We also saw the very beautiful Lady Orchid flowering, one of the first of the season, and it should be noted, that Hartslock nature reserve is one of the best places to see them.

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Week 5, Day 2 – Workshop Presentation

This day was a half day course on how to better be able to deliver presentations to a wide range of audiences. We had to bring in a personal object of some meaning to us, write down several good and bad points about how we communicate and prepare a short 5 minute presentation on a project that we were proud of.

This was a surprisingly good day. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as historically I haven’t enjoyed giving presentations. I amazed myself at how confident I was, though I put that down to the group being very small, and knowing most of them.

I chose to do my presentation on my masters dissertation project, where I was able to explain the history of the project, what I learned and why I was proud of my contribution. I tried to utilise some of the techniques that I was taught that day, such as how to hold the room and keep my body language confident by not shifting around. Minimising hand gestures, and maintaining eye contact were also very important, but I think the most useful thing that I was taught was how to embody confidence. We were told that a lot of people, such as actors or lecturers, envisage a circle on the floor where they will be standing for the presentation, and project good feeling into the circle, such as confidence, relaxation etc, and then when you walk into that space you feel the things that you have previously projected into the space. It is a very simple mind trick, but it works wonders!

Another important point, was that we were told to think carefully about our audience. So before you even add information to your presentation, do some background planning on your audience. Find out how to capture their attention, keep their attention, your method of delivery – what does your audience want from your presentation. After you’ve done that, introduce your subject to your planning, and make a list of questions you want yo answer and bear in mind as you write your presentation. Finally, you “storyboard” your presentation, laying out how you will tackle your questions, and only after you have done that- add your information in. It is remarkably effective!

 

Week 6, Day 1 – Data Crunching

A day in the office, important to start gaining some more experience in how to input data into the (numerous) databases that BBOWT uses to record data. Accuracy is incredibly important as all of our data are reported back to government bodies such as Natural England to assess the state of Britain’s nature! This is obviously a cause close to my heart, and the whole of BBOWT’s!

It is also nice to spend some time in the office to get to know other members of the team better. As trainees, Ben and I have mainly been spending time with the person who would be classed as our line manager, as he has done most of our training. It is still a really lovely office, there always seems to be cake, everyone has lunch together and everyone laughs and has a good time. But unfortunately not the most interesting day to write about and take pictures of!

Week 6, Day 2 – Rapid Impact Assessment

Today we went back to Moor Copse Nature reserve for a full day of Rapid Impact Assessments. These are surveys that help you determine the health of your reserve and the success of your management by filling in a site-specific form, of species that should or should not be present.20170426_135716

This then gets transferred to a (you guessed it) database, which can them cleverly tell you whether or not the reserve is up to snuff. Things you are looking for when you complete this are the presence of key species such as Native Bluebells, and that there is less than 25% of the ground in the survey area covered in bramble. Those are just two examples, there are usually something akin to 40 criteria!

The whole reserve is sampled by splitting it into habitats ie. woodland, heathland, wetland, hay meadow etc etc, and then each habitat is surveyed in one go. We were focusing on woodland habitat, so we walked 100 paces into the wood, surveyed a 2m square, then expanded it to 15m square to fit different criteria. Walked 100 more paces did the same, until you hit a boundary. Then you walk 50 meters at a right angle, turn another 90 degrees and walk back in the original direction for 100 paces. It’s a way of making the sampling random, so then you don’t skew the sample by choosing an area with all the ground flora that you’re searching for. It probably sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is, but I found it a very interesting day. It was great to see how fast my species knowledge improved with repetition.

Aside from the slightly *ahem* dodgy goings on at Moor Copse, it really is a beautiful wood, especially for bluebells at this time of year!

 

Week 4 – Snake’s-head Fritillary Count

“I don’t want to protect the environment, I want to create a world where the environment doesn’t need protecting” – Unknown

Slightly different week this week!

Day 1 – Water voles

Monday was a fun, but fairly normal day back on the border with Wiltshire surveying for water voles again. We had to go back to finish the stretch of river we started last time, and also we had a new person with us, who works mainly in the office on Land planning things, but wanted to volunteer more and come out. It makes sense that if you spend a lot of your time indoors working for an organisation that protects nature, you would want to spend at least some of your time joining other teams and seeing what you’re working for!

So, we went back to the farm as it’s a good place to survey, with almost guaranteed signs of water voles. It’s a little harder, and less fun, than wading along the river as some of the signs are hidden by the ever-growing scrub and reeds. But we saw many a dropping, latrine and feeding sign.

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We also saw how much more the undergrowth is growing, which is great, but is making me apprehensive for future surveys as it is clearly going to be a challenge pushing through a wall if nettles 7 feet high to search for the signs. But, on the flip side I am seeing more and more beautiful plants and animals every day- like the marsh marigolds pictured above (sorry about the picture quality, I was trying to get them in the context of the wider wood).

It was also really great to see how much Ben and I are improving at finding and identifying the field signs. A definite improvement from the first time we were at that site, and it means that we should be allowed to go out on surveys without Gav’s supervision! By supervision, I mean is surveying hawkeye- it was quite gratifying to have him follow us round to see if we missed any important signs and not miss any- a enormous difference. I did miss an otter sign at one point, which wasn’t great, but Ben spotted it, and it’s an important lesson to not get too focused on one species, when it is important to stay aware of everything.

Day 2 – Pre-count

So. The big Snake’s-head fritillary pre-count. The count has been done every single year since 1981 (apart from one year when it wasn’t allowed, because of foot and mouth), and it doesn’t seem very much like anyone knows quite why we do it anymore, but it’s a tradition! And people from the community do get quite involved as well, they look forward to it, it brings business to the very tiny local shop and it is also quite a spectacle to behold.

But anyway, this was the day of the pre-count! The day that two staff members, Ben and myself went down to the very beautiful Iffley meadows and counted all of the Snake’s-head fritillaries that were present in the “non-dense” patches, the rationale being that the dense patches were counted properly with a larger group of volunteers from BBOWT.

To add another layer of complication though, because the weather has been so extraordinary, most of the flowering heads have gone over and started to seed, or fade, so we also had to do at least 8 quadrats (below) and figure out the ratio of flowering heads to non-flowering heads, so then after the proper count, we could multiply the number of individual flowering plants by the ratio, to figure out the total number of plants.

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The day was spent, walking round each meadow, counting each flowering head that we saw. It took maybe five or so hours, and the four of us counted over 3000 flowering fritillaries. It was a nice walk, but it was quite slow. Sitting and having lunch amongst the flowers was lovely, especially as we had the chance to see a hobby! As we had nothing else planned for the day, Colin let us leave early!

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Day 3 – The big count

The big day.

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I love my job. I do. But I did find today quite difficult. It was a very very slow day. It involved us all walking (as pictured) with a bamboo cane in between each person, doing several passes across each dense patch of flowers and counting every single flowering head that we saw. It’s definitely not an exact science, but it’s the way that it has been done every year. This was especially frustrating when a few members of the public refused to believe that’s how we counted the flowers, but believe me, that’s how it’s done.

The first half of the day, Ben wasn’t in formation, he got to shout out from the side lines and keep everyone in line as we walked slowly across each patch, making sure that the people that didn’t have anything to count kept going at the pace of the people that were counting a lot. Then, after lunch, everyone had to deal with me shouting at them. I controlled the line very well, and I must say that I enjoyed it a great deal more than counting.

I’m making it sound a lot worse than it was probably, as the time did pass quite quickly, but I did just find the whole day quite frustrating.

 

We did go early again at least. And long weekend!

Week 3 – Walk the line

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics”

– Aldo Leopold

Day 1 – Butterfly Transects

More butterfly transects today – but properly, as in we actually had to count the number of butterflies that we saw.

The butterfly survey season officially starts on April 1st, but a survey can only be completed if the temperature is above 13 degrees, it’s not too windy and there is more than 60% sun. If the temperature is above 17 degrees, then sun vs cloud cover becomes less important, as it is still warm enough for butterflies to want to fly. You then record walk the transect, without stopping, recording each individual butterfly that comes into your “box”. The “box”, is the invisible indicator of how close a butterfly has to be to you before you can record it. This is 2.5 meters in front of you, to both sides and above you – not behind you. Then just make a tally of the number of each species you saw in each section of the transect. Piece of cake!

We did 3 transects, two at Grangelands and the Rifle Range, and one on Bacombe Hill. All of these reserves are based on the beautiful Chilterns, walking some sections of the Ridgeway pathway.

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Despite the weather and conditions being perfect for the survey (hello the beginnings of a tan!), we didn’t see many butterflies. The best transect was on Grangelands, and this has traditionally been the best transect for many years. We saw Orange tips, Brimstones, Holly Blues and a Peacock. These data (and the rest) will be sent to the Butterfly Conservation Society and analysed to discover what has been happening over the past year.

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The other really good thing about today is that we were finally properly initiated into BBOWT by being taken to the Crazy Bear farm shop to get THE best sausage rolls. It’s a sign that we have been accepted! There is also a small farm/play area here where we saw these very sweet Gloucestershire Old Spot piglets!

10.2 Km walked again – a solid start.

Day 2 – Watervoles

Unfortunately, I have no photos of today as I decided to take the precaution of leaving my phone safe in my bag away from the water, as I am so accident prone!

We spent the day wading down Sandford Brook near Abingdon (literally just at the back of the Tesco car park), which was quite surreal. I really enjoyed being able to survey from the water, it’s quite relaxing, but also easier as finding feeding signs and burrows is a lot easier from this perspective.

Despite the brook being small, and there being quite a lot of rubbish floating in the water from the Tescos, we found a whopping 94 feeding signs! Which was incredible especially given the territory size- although unfortunately there isn’t really a way of determining if there are a lot of individuals present, or a few very active individuals. I am happy to report that the activity has spread further down the brook from previous years, which is a positive sign!

Although I liked being in the water, it is disconcerting to not be able to see you feet sometimes. Plus I have a very overactive imagination, so can’t help but remember the hundreds of scenes from books and films of snake-like monsters lurking amongst the reeds and silt! Obviously that might be a problem, if we were wading down a tributary of the Amazon or something, but not so much in Britain… strange how irrational fears can be sometimes!

After lunch, we then walked another route (just on the bank) that will be used to train volunteers in what signs to look out for. I also had the chance to see a Garden Warbler, but Ben decided to be immature and spent the whole time throwing burdock at me, meaning that I didn’t see it!

Ended up walking 11.4 Km, which is pretty good going!

 

Day 3 – Great Crested Newts

The day of the Great Crested Newt (GCN) course!

I have discovered, that I love Newts. They’re so sweet! It’s also important to protect all of our newts, but particularly GCN as we have a population of global importance! It’s quite worrying what will happen in the context of Brexit, as a lot of the protected species legislation is European. If that is removed… then what happens? More raptor persecution, further species loss and degradation of our already suffering ecosysetms? Just today the news announced that the UK is set to lose at least a third of the environmental legislation. I digress..

The GCN course was wonderful, half of the day was spent going through the theory of GCN trapping, ID and protective legislation, in addition to wider knowledge about British amphibians and what habitat they can be found in.

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I am really looking forward to further fieldwork in this area! We built our own newt-traps and took them down to ponds where we know that there are Smooth Newts and practised using the traps and trying the netting technique. I was incredibly excited that we caught one male and one female and got to appreciate their unique beauty (each Newt’s markings are unique and so it is possible to identify individuals). It was really very special to be able to handle them and see how perfectly adapted and delicate they are. I also got to brush up on my Macroinvertebrate ID skills as there were a lot present in the pond, and I saw my first dragonfly larvae as well.

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The next stage of my licensing, is to complete further fieldwork, setting traps around the pond in the evening, and emptying them in the morning, as well as attempting all of the various techniques. If I can complete these satisfactorily then I will achieve a reference and be able to apply for a license!

A whopping 11.2 Km today. It’s starting to feel weird when I don’t walk!

Week 2 – Through the Deer-proof fence

“Environmental pollution is an incurable disease. It can only be prevented” – Barry Commoner

Day 1 – Deer Assessment Survey

Today we went to a beautiful woodland reserve called Moor Copse. It is a stunning bluebell woodland (with a slight deer problem), but is also unfortunately more famous as a site for several clandestine meetings, than its beauty.

The aim of today was to assess the woodland to see how much of an impact the the deer were having on the woodland’s regeneration. As both Muntjac and Roe deer are present, we were expecting a quite a few signs of deer impact. If we found this to be true then we would then need to inform the reserves team, who manage the reserve, of the impact and advise them on the best course of action (i.e culling more or less deer).

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I absolutely adore this woodland. One of my favourite things about this traineeship so far has been the chance to go, quite literally, off the beaten track, and into parts of the reserve that no one else can see. It felt like walking through a mystic wood, however fantastical that sounds, it’s true. Once you push through the barrier of brambles and scrub, you reach a more open space, with a carpet of bluebells and coppiced hazels, it feels quiet and peaceful, just birdsong and the sound of my own footsteps.

Another thing I’ve learnt is that if you know what you’re looking for, deer signs are really easy to see. Young brambles and ivy are like deer chocolate; addictive and irresistible. This creates obvious browsing lines, where the growth of ivy suddenly starts again above where the deer can reach. Other signs are where stems abruptly stop after being nibbled, or all of the leaves have been stripped off. They also create racks (basically deer tracks, don’t ask me why they’re called racks instead), couches – where they scrape away leaves to the bare earth and sleep, and wallows, presumably where they wallow like any other animal, although we didn’t actually see any. Another cool thing is that deer hair is actually hollow, so if you find any and try and bend it, it will either snap or create a definite point, whereas if you try and bend other hair, it’s not possible to do the same. If there’s a lot of food available, deer will be selective, eating young bramble leaves and ivy, before moving on to more mature leaves or even browsing bluebell leaves.

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There were also more dormice boxes which we checked- there were no dormice, we were just excited.

There’s also a Heritage site- full of 50 year old rubbish from when Irish labourers built the motorway in the 1960s. It’s kind of spooky, like people left in a hurry and ended up leaving their precious belongings. Other highlights of the day included finding tree snails! I didn’t even know that these were a thing, but they are and they’re tiny! Apparently there are hundreds of species, so one day maybe i’ll get round to doing some research. I also saw some Badger poo, which was quite gross. It looks like really slimy black dog poo, in a latrine that the badgers dig a short distance away from their sett. But it’s important to be able to recognise different types of poo, as sometimes it’s the only sign that you might see of an indication of a species being present.

Another 10.8 Km walked!

Day 2 – Water Voles

Yeeeesssss, today was a day I was looking forward to! BBOWT are in charge of the longest running Water Vole Restoration project in the whole of the UK, so having the chance to be a part of it is kind of a big deal!

We went to a lovely place on the border between Oxfordshire and Wiltshire, near Shrivenham. It’s not actually on a reserve, but on a private farm so I won’t mention the place name. Another beautiful day though, full sunshine, so we cracked out the suncream for the first time this year.

Water vole surveys are fairly simple in their construction so long as you can distinguish between rat poo and water vole poo! We spent the whole time walking along the south bank of the river, unfortunately it was too deep to wade, otherwise the process may have been easier. We each had long sticks (almost staffs really), which we used to move vegetation out of the way of the bank so we could search for burrows, latrines (areas where lots of water voles poo) and feeding signs (where the water voles have bitten off vegetation at a 45 degree angle). This can be quite tricky to avoid falling in… which the other trainee (Ben) didn’t manage! At least he didn’t go in head first like the last year’s trainee, but it was quite funny! I didn’t manage to get many pictures as when I was going to help I discovered a Mallard’s nest – priorities!

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So a basic summary of the day is that I learnt the difference between rat poo and water vole poo (rat poo is pointed at one end and water vole poo isn’t and they’re both roughly the size of a tic tic…). This also involved handling lots of poo, including a rather fresh otter spraint. I also spent a lot of time kneeling in nettles attempting to reach various poo items, but that wasn’t too bad. Not as keen for when they apparently grow up to be taller than 7 feet!

Other beautiful wildlife moments of the day included flushing a barn owl out of a hollow tree, spotting a kingfisher and a sparrowhawk!

Walked a mere 8.4 Km today, pitiful!

Day 3 – Modified Breeding Bird Transects

Today we visited two reserves, Whitecross Green Wood and Asham Meads. In order to do a breeding bird survey, you have to walk a set transect route and count how many birds you see or hear, then rate them on a scale one 1 -4, depending on how many metres they were away from you… The transect route is also split into several sections (about 200m each in length), and you have to do this for each section.

I have discovered, that I am really not very good at this.

This is because, you have to be very good at recognising birds in flight, or separating individual songs from the overall cacophony, whilst factoring in the sheer variation of each species songs, plus the number of different calls they each have, plus the species that mimic each other. Apparently I’ll get better, I have since been gifted MP3s of all British bird songs, so if I do some homework as well then I will get better!

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Whitecross Green Wood is (yet another) lovely reserve, full of wild garlic and wildflowers and is excellently managed for both butterflies and birds. It is another site with a deer problem, so it does get actively managed for that too. The picture above was taken in the deer ex-closure, and it was amazing to see how much more growth and ground cover there is here, compared to the rest of the wood.

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Asham Meads, on the other hand, is rather bleak! It’s the first reserve that I’ve come across that I haven’t immediately taken to. It is a rather wet reserve in the middle of farmland, that is protected because of the presence of curlew (not that there are any). It does have it’s charm, but it was more like a walk through a windy field than anything else. It does have some lovely blossom, but didn’t have a lot in the way of bird-life.

Ironically, just off the reserve we got to see two Greater Spotted Woodpeckers engaging in courting behaviour, chasing each other up and down and round several trees and near-by telegraph poles, so that was really nice to see!

Another cheeky 10.2 Km walked as well. Next week, we might get to start butterfly transects, as the butterfly survey season officially starts on April 1st, although I have already seen a couple of brimstone and red admiral butterflies about!

Week one – Introduction

We have to prove to the disinherited majority of the world that ecology and conservation will not work against their interest but will bring an improvement in their lives.” – Indira Gandhi

Day one- Grey Partridge

My first proper day as a trainee was excellent. One of my favourite things about working in this field has been that I automatically have things in common with the people that I work with. If I wasn’t already having a wonderful time doing something I love, then the people would make it worthwhile.

The morning was taken up with a bio-team meeting (with coffee and cake), and was a great opportunity to meet everyone in the team and find out in a bit more depth about what each person does. The second half of the day was my first chance to get out in the field- and as I found out later, help with the first survey of the season!

As the planned bird survey was rained off, we ended up going to a gorgeous reserve called Wells Farm (BBOWT’s answer to Hope Farm) to do a Grey Partridge Survey. This meant that we walked the whole of the reserve and did a count of how many Partridge we saw. Quite an easy day to start, although we still ended up walking over 11 kilometres! We ended up only seeing 2 pairs and 1 single partridge (5 total), but the fields were absolutely teeming in other birdlife – yellow hammers, meadow pipits and reed buntings to name a few! I noticed how poor my bird ID skills are, especially if I am trying to ID birds through song alone, but that is a good thing, it’s something to improve on! The weather might have been quite poor, but the birds didn’t mind- and it shows how well birds can still thrive on farmland. Just by making small changes to management, farmland birds can be saved from such a steep decline, and the farm can still be productive. Quite tired now, but I think a great first day!

 

Day two- Hazel Dormice

I was so excited for today! Hazel Dormice, with their ginormous beady eyes and bushy tails, are (or should be) the Audrey Hepburn of the rodent world. Although we were out in the field all day at Chinnor Hill, it was surprisingly less strenuous than our half day the day before. It is a steep survey site, which can be difficult on chalky grassland as it has a tendency to become very slippery after even a bit of moisture! But it was a lovely day, and a chance to work with the Reserves team and some more members of the Bio team, which meant I’ve got to know everyone a bit better.

We started by checking half of the old survey boxes from previous years and found that all the boxes (with one exception) were inactive, and the active box was with a blue tit nest rather than dormice! As the site had been found to be inactive (for dormice) for a few consecutive years, it was decided that we would remove the boxes and move them somewhere more likely to be used. After lunch, we walked back up the slope with some spare boxes and checked the other half of the survey site. Although alas, no dormice, we did find a box full of wood mice! I didn’t get a chance to handle any this time, but I’ve decided to try going for my dormouse survey license which would involve learning how to handle small rodents! I did watch one of the bio team learn how to handle the wood mice, but because we thought that they might have been a young family we ended up leaving them be. We ended up having to replace so many of the old boxes that had been chewed through, that we didn’t actually have enough boxes left to extend the site as first planned. A shame perhaps, but it means that it’s a chance to go back, by which time hopefully some dormice have taken advantage of our beautiful and improved (look at the picture!) boxes, and I will be able to see one in the wild!

The whole day was rather special, beautiful sunshine and good company and plenty of dogs walking through the reserve- which probably got quite annoying for everyone else as I insisted I said hello to all of them.

On the way home we stopped off by an old chalk quarry as apparently a little ringed plover had been spotted, but we couldn’t see any. We did see a few teal, mallard and canada geese in addition to the red kites, which now seem completely ubiquitous throughout the Chilterns. Then back to HQ just in time for a cup of tea and some admin work and reading codes of practice.. not going to lie, although codes of practice are very important, I think that I enjoyed the tea more than the reading!

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Day three- Butterfly Transects

Another important day. Today was a day to walk two of the butterfly transect routes, in order to double check the route map and instructions for new volunteers that might not know the site. We went to Gomm Valley and Homefield Wood reserves, both of which are in the Chilterns so mainly consist of chalky grassland, scrub and some established woodland. The Gomm Valley transect was relatively straight forward, but Homefield wood was much trickier! The instructions weren’t particularly clear, but also as it’s a more intensively managed area, it is possible that site of the landmarks that were mentioned had been moved, or might have disappeared.

I’d like to focus particularly on Homefield wood, as it is really a hidden gem. Used mainly by local dog walkers, it is a steep wooded reserve in the heart of the Chilterns, with open glades perfect for Military Orchid. I also saw a pair of nesting ravens, fire crests, gold crests, marsh tits and a jay. All stunning birds that I haven’t previously had a chance to properly look at. I really love this job, I’m outside for most of the day, and I get to see places and things that I would never have had the chance to see before. Plus I’ve walked over 33 kilometres in the past three days, so I have a sneaky feeling that I will also get fitter.

One of the other things I’m beginning to love about this job is that it always seems to work out that the reserves are in close proximity to quintessential country pubs so if the weather is awful, there’s always great places to shelter! But that’s just a small perk.

 

Next week I should be going out on deer impact surveys and water vole surveys, plus even more!

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